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August 26, 2003

A Coffee Can Will Suffice, Thanks

Posted by Mike on August 26, 2003 5:19 PM

I've spent the last few days reading Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death Revisited". I picked it up on the heels of sitting through season one of HBO's funeral home drama "Six Feet Under".

Mitford's book was first written in 1963, and it concerns itself with the American funeral industry -- the owners and operators of funeral homes and cemeteries. The "Revisited" part of the title reflects the updates made to the book in 1996, slightly before the author's death. I picked it up thinking it would be something of a novelty book: something that would go on the shelf in the section I think of as "dysfunctional America." I've long thought the whole funeral home thing was a little disagreeable, but never thought of it as something in need of "reform." About three quarters of the way through, I've changed my mind: When I get some spare time, my funeral instructions are going to be written out in detail and with an eye to ensuring no one I love has to spend more than a few moments in the paws of an undertaker.

Mitford makes a few attempts to sort out the "good" undertakers from the "bad" ones, but the industry in which they operate makes it hard.

With markups on coffins that run over 300 percent and an American fixation on open-coffin viewing (which necessitates unnecessary embalming and cosmetic work) (a fixation the funeral industry itself has worked hard to instill, by the way), once you bring these people in contact with a bereaved family, and threaten their profit margins by demanding a simple cremation, they can't help but fret about their bottom line. So like any sales force, they've adapted and figured out ways to manipulate the psychology of grief in a grotesque end-of-life dramatization of the same forces consumer culture brings to bear on us when we're alive: They offer an assuagement of lingering guilt over unfinished business or unresolved conflicts by subtly pressuring mourners to select more expensive and more elaborate products as a "tribute" to the deceased, pushing the prices of funerals up over $10,000 with ease. They work to undermine the relationship of the clergy with members of a church to keep a more objective priest or pastor from interfering with their hard sell. Sometimes they threaten mutilation of cadavers if the family balks at buying a more expensive coffin. They lie about the law to force purchase of expensive burial vaults and embalming.

In "Six Feet Under," one character's dislike of the family funeral business is framed as an inability to come to grips with death, but having read Mitford's book, I think I'll have a hard time stepping into a funeral home again, not because I can't deal with death but because the overwhelming depths of cynicism driving the industry border on nausea inducing.

It's not all scandal and exposé. Mitford's writing style reminds me quite a bit of another favorite author: Paul Fussell, who wrote (among others) "Class" and "BAD: The Dumbing of America". Neither have any use for euphemism or puffery. Mitford's demolitions of the pretensions to professionalism on display from the funeral industry and its insistence on gloss words for almost every possible element of a funeral (caskets, not coffins; preparation, not embalming; interment, not burial; grave opening not grave digging; vehicle not hearse) are entertaining and witty. She has a tart voice that's driven not so much by cynicism or jadedness as a sort of overwhelmingly clear-eyed way of seeing the world.

Her book drove hard pushes for funeral industry reform on the part of the Federal Trade Commission (largely fought into stalemate by the industry itself), but it also served the purpose of mobilizing others, including the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, which serves as a consumer-driven investigatory and advocacy group. It's a tough industry to crack in a culture that's confused obfuscation and euphemism for "gentility," but someone needs to do it, and Mitford made that abundantly clear.